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Walking around the garden it the last few weeks I noticed that the nīkau palm at the gate has two flower clusters beginning to form and I realised that I really know very little about them.

Time to find out more!

It was surprising to learn that although the clusters form throughout the year only about a third develop into the large, finger like, clusters of mauve flowers – two boys for every girl – that appear from the base of the lowest branch. Sweet and sticky with nectar, the flowers attract tuī, other birds and insects, especially bees and the bright red berries – that Kereu love – take from a year to 18 months to ripen.

The New Zealand nīkau palm, Rhopalostylis sapida, is the southernmost member of the palm family and our only native palm species. Nīkau occur naturally east to west from North Cape to about Christchurch, but they differ north to south. In the north they more slender and shorter, about 15 metres tall, their leaves are shorter too and more upright, while the southern nikau grow to about 20 metres with fronds that are more arching. On the Kermadecs, Rhopalostylis cheesemanii, have leaves are more spreading, berries that are larger and those nīkau are said to grow faster.

Nīkau palms also grow on the Chatham Islands, and because they have been separated from the mainland for so long some botanists believe that the plants there should belong to a separate species .

Nikau have been called the feather duster palm or shaving brush palm because of the geometrical arrangement of the fronds – the shaft each one 135 degrees distant from the other around the crown, giving the palms their distinctive shape. The base of each leaf completely circles the trunk and each one fits around the previous. The mature fronds are shed between October and May, leaving a circular scar on the trunk. You might think that counting the rings will tell you how old a nīkau is …but somewhere between one and five fronds are shed every year, they are very slow growing taking over 20 years for the trunk to form and almost 200 years to reach ten metres

Nīkau palms had importance in Māori life and for early settlers. Leaves were used to thatch houses, to wrap food before cooking, and to weave into hats, mats, baskets, and even leg protection for travelling through dense undergrowth. The berries were made into necklaces or eaten when green.

The immature flowers are edible and can be cooked and eaten like cauliflower. “Millionaires salad” can be made from the heart of the developing leaves but harvesting the shoots kills the whole tree!


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